A touchstone of Lancaster University's learning technology strategy is the use of IT to support collaborative learning. The University has been using asynchronous computer-mediated communication to support collaboration in teaching, learning and research since 1988. Since 1993, Lotus Notes  has been in use at the University and in April this year was adopted as the University's centrally supported conference system.
This paper describes completed work and work in progress that uses Notes as the support environment for asynchronous collaboration and information sharing. The factors affecting the choice of Lotus Notes as the centrally supported system are outlined, along with some of the practical support implications. The potential Notes provides to support robust and secure use of the Web for collaborative working is also explored.
This area of activity takes two distinct forms where asynchronous collaboration, supported by Notes, is used either as an integral part of an academic course of study or for research support. The following sections describe the characteristics of each of these forms.
Integral to Course of Study
There are a variety of models for CMC participation [12,16] some of which are briefly described below:
Query and Response - problem centered communication, with all participants able to see the question and suggested solution(s).
Electronic Seminar - the discussion is started with a short written presentation or question relevant to the area to be discussed. Students then participate in ongoing debate about this area
Electronic Learning Sets - takes the idea of face-to-face learning sets and translates it to an electronic medium. Learners explain their own current problem or task (generally with a work-based focus). The set then acts as a resource to assist them in thinking through their course of action or understanding of the problem/task.
The examples used to illustrate this category are all at the MA level of study. Each course has a common need to support distance learners in a flexible way, to fit with students working practice. The student body mainly comprises busy professionals who wish to pursue a course of study for professional or personal development. As such, academic programmes with constraints of time and place are unsuitable for them.
Case 1 - Professional Development for Practicing Management Developers
This course took its 'traditional' face-to-face design and looked at how CMC could be used to support the course in order to open up more opportunities for participation in the programme. The traditional course has a series of week long residential workshops that focus on different aspects of Management Development. At these workshops, learning sets are formed, between 5-7 participants in size. These sets then meet once or twice between the workshops, at a convenient time and place with a tutor, to discuss their course work. As can be imagined, the difficulties of negotiating the time and place can become overwhelming as work pressures take over from commitment to the course.
A computer-mediated version of this course has been offered since 1992, initially using the text-based system Caucus and now using Lotus Notes. The residential workshops still take place as before. However, the face-to-face set meetings are replaced with Electronic Learning Sets. Each set has its own discussion database, with read access for other members of the larger group being allowed by some sets. There is also a group discussion database, where whole group issues can be raised and discussed. This is also the main place for communication with the Notes support staff.
Previously, participants exchanged their written work using postal means, but comment on the work using the conferencing system. Now, since Notes allows them to attach files containing their papers, this process can also be speeded up.
Since 1995, they have also instigated an initial 24 hour (lunch time to lunch time) workshop to get participants up to speed with the use of Notes. They feel this has significantly speeded up the process for people to get on-line and focusing on the course content, rather than on their initial experiences with the technology.
On the move from Caucus to Notes, one student commented that it was "like changing from driving a Reliant Robin to a Ferrari". Altogether about 150 conferences have been moved from Caucus into Lotus Notes, so earlier discussions are still available.
Case 2 - A Modular Programme for the Development of Learning Technology Professionals.
This programme of study is based around a set of modules, introductory face-to-face residential sessions and exchange of knowledge and experience between tutors and learners using CMC. This course has also made the move from Caucus to Lotus Notes. Each module begins with a 24 hour residential session. Where necessary, the module also includes hands-on sessions with Lotus Notes.
The residential is followed by a 12 week period of home/work-based independent study. A resource pack is supplied to support this study period, consisting of reading, audio-visual material etc. Lotus Notes is used to support tutorial discussion and learner interaction, with different discussion databases being created for different discussion topics. Resources are developed around learner's queries and discussions, with remedial information and updates being quickly disseminated through the electronic discussion space. Learner collaboration and sharing of professional concerns and expertise is encouraged .
Advantages of Using Notes to Support Distance Learners
An extensive review of existing systems was undertaken in 1995 against criteria generated by the user community in Lancaster. The advantages of using Notes were identified and implementation in various scenarios has shown that these are in fact the case. The main ones as far as distance learners are concerned are the integrated support for off-line working, the ability to share documents electronically, and the multiple media possibilities that Notes can support compared to the old text-only system, for example, sound files, graphics, video clips, screencam movies for training etc.
Replication over long distances can be by telephone (PSTN), TCP/IP, X.25 or ISDN. Currently Lancaster's Notes servers are available to remote Notes client users by one dedicated PSTN modem and by Internet. Remote Network Access will also become available; local connections can be made using all major LAN protocols.
Problems Encountered in Supporting Distance Learner Use of Notes
Initial installation has so far run smoothly for most users, with paper-based supporting documentation being a critical element in helping learners through the process. Installation has occasionally caused difficulty and getting the software to people is often non-trivial simply because of the number of discs involved.
Most commonly problems concern modems, usually when the modem is not a type supported by Notes. Notes is supplied with many purpose written modem scripts but it can still be more fussy about modem connections than some other communication systems; probably because, unlike a typical terminal diallup connection, Notes is designed to make and break connections without human intervention. In our experience once initial problems have been solved, client-server and server-server diallup connections are usually very reliable.
Perhaps one of the main difficulties is the initial conceptual understanding of the process of Replication. This is where an identical copy of a database, held on the Notes server, is made on a learner's own machine. A learner can then work on the database locally i.e. not incurring any network connection charges, an important consideration for distance learners. After this initial copy is made, the learner must regularly update the server copy (replicate with it) to register comments they have made and 'collect' any comments that have been made by others. Since working with Notes on- and off-line is so similar, learners sometimes forget to replicate and wonder why things are so quiet. The importance of regular replication is stressed in the supporting documentation. Demonstration and practice of the process at residential workshops appears to have helped ease this problem.
Another conceptual hiccup tends to be to get people away from the e-mail mentality to the groupware mind set. Since many users are familiar with e-mail they expect conferencing to be an extension of that, which of course in some ways it is. The main difference is to ensure people understand that all people with access to a discussion space can read what is written, even if they are not writing anything. There have been instances of personal messages being placed in a public discussion space because the person had forgotten that this was not private e-mail.
Notes V4.0 requires a minimum specification of a 486, 8 Mb RAM and at least 20 Mb HD space for installation. Anyone purchasing a new machine should meet this spec. easily. However, learners who have inherited old PC's may have to participate using Notes V3, which can run on a 386 with 4 Mb RAM and takes less disk space. This has a support implication, since user's guides are required for both versions, some V4.0 database designs cannot be accessed by V3 etc. The same is true of Notes on a MAC and there was great disappointment when V4 turned out to be very resource hungry requiring a minimum 12 Mb RAM.
Notes support for multiple client platforms is a boon but it also makes for more complex support issues, particularly when many client machines are remote from Lancaster. Some client machines may not even be available to support staff.
Since the start of this academic year the use of the Notes/Web integration (Domino) software has increased on a weekly basis. Domino allows web browsers such as Netscape to be used to access Notes databases of any kind. Discussion databases are available that are specially designed to take best advantage of web-use. Although experience is limited (at present this is being written at the end of week 7 of the Michaelmas term), in most cases lecturers wish to make use of several types of collaborative support:
- noticeboard (for administrative notices, deadlines etc.)
- question and answer (mainly tutor led and possibly leading to FAQ site creation)
- student-led discussion
Domino allows sophisticated access controls to be added to these databases so that information can be restricted to a named group of students and/or staff using name and password control, a security feature often absent from Web-based applications.
Departments involved in this way of supporting students so far are:
- Educational Research & Geography (joint project)
Critical factors in the success of any of these implementations is that there is a strong rationale, that students can relate to, for using this medium when they are often physically able to meet (not the situation with distance learners using this medium to discuss work). Also that sessions to bring students up to speed with the technology are timetabled and early in the course. It is not possible yet to assume that all students have the necessary computer and/or web skills necessary to quickly overcome the initial overhead of learning the technology. In general a 1 hour lab session has been found sufficient to get students started.
Notes and its predecessor at Lancaster were both initially used in distributed research projects rather than in support of taught courses .
Case 3 - CLDN (Co-operative Learning and Development Network)
The first use of Notes at Lancaster was in 1993 by the Just In Time Open Learning (JITOL) project as one element of trials. CLDN was a consortium of partners from the public and private sector with a common interest in the presence and development of women managers. Reports have indicated that some learner characteristics influence reaction to CMC [8,13]. It was felt that women managers could benefit from the opportunities presented by groupware because:
- Women managers are a dispersed group in most organisations, working in relatively isolated situations with little immediate support from other women managers.
- Research suggests that women's preferred way of communicating is a co-operative one, based on arriving at a new understanding though the sharing of ideas, discussion and exploration 
However, Notes was new to everyone involved in the project and there was little time for familiarisation and production of custom introductory documentation. Several participants were new to the concept of groupware and unfamiliar with modems. The technology worked for some but not for others and it was generally felt that too much time was taken up by technological issues. Some participants also felt there was an issue of female dependency on males so far as these technical issues were concerned. Several reasons for unsatisfactory participation were identified.
Case 4 - Virtuosi
A number of large commercial organisations and UK universities are partners in the VirtuOsi project which aims to build distributed virtual reality systems to support work groups. The project is exploring the use of virtual reality to allow multiple users to perform simultaneous, co-operative work across geographically dispersed locations. Notes has been used as a means of distributing project documents and comment amongst participating organisations.
Instead of obliging all participants to make a remote connection to a central (remote) computer, when conferences are distributed, institutions can manage access appropriately to local circumstances. Each Notes participant, server or client, needs only one connection pathway to a Notes server for a distributed conference to function - rather like Usenet News. If institution X runs its Notes servers on a Netware network, local participants can use the Notes conference over Netware to debate with remote colleagues using different client platforms and communication protocols (phone, ISDN, TCP, Netbios, AppleTalk etc.) via other servers. Even within an institution, a Notes server or servers running mixed protocols permits clients of different types (e.g. Windows, Mac, OS/2) to share information in a rich environment.
Notes has numerous features appropriate for distributed collaboration but one of the most useful is server to server replication. One Lancaster Notes server replicates with servers in other institutions by telephone and by Internet. Inter-institutional Server-server replication is useful because it reduces the number of long-distance connections required (saving time, money and spreading the load on servers.) It also means individuals can effectively work locally without ever having to connect to remote servers. Notes servers (and clients) can automate replication to occur at scheduled times. This is useful because new material created elsewhere appears in users conferences without repetitive effort on their part. When users replicate manually they sometimes only 'bother' after writing something new themselves.
Case 5 -Learning Company & Re-View
The Learning Company is a personal, professional and organisational development programme based on the assumption that improved learning processes will help organisations better achieve their objectives and purposes for the benefit of all stakeholders. Re-View is a European organisation aiming to explore collective learning processes and democratic collaboration in an on-line environment.
So far Notes has been used almost exclusively for on-line discussion but other more specialised applications are planned. Participants in these projects may use Notes from their place of work but many connect from home either by direct dial or using a diallup Internet connection.
Asynchronous Information Sharing
This category of use involves Lotus Notes and Notes Domino. Domino is a Notes server and a Web server which means a Notes will interact with a normal web client. Notes databases are displayed on the web in a very similar format to the way they appear in Notes, with the possibility of having different Views of the same information, for example documents can be organised by author, creation date, keyword etc. Notes automatically generates the HTML code both for displaying documents and for the links between the documents effectively acting as a secure, multi-platform, multi-user Web authoring environment. Support for evolving Web standards such as SSL, HTML, Frames etc is promised.
This approach has been particularly appropriate for information sharing, since many users are familiar with Web technology, but have neither the time nor the inclination to learn how to use Notes. It also ameliorates the cost of requiring a Notes licence per user, a not insignificant sum when talking > 9,000 users at several pounds per person.
Again, case studies are used to illustrate how Notes and the Web have been used.
Case 6 - Management Information Sharing
In order to allow reference documents, such as agendas and minutes of meetings, policy documents etc. to be easily categorised and searched, a Notes Document Database has been employed. Documents are entered in the database either as full text or as attachments if very large. A record is kept automatically of the name and date that any document is edited after it was entered. People requiring access to the information are all licenced Lotus Notes users and at present none of the information is available on the Web. The intention is to make documents that are open access available via the web at a later date.
Case 7 - Teaching Developments Database & Discussion
This is an ongoing project aimed at disseminating examples of good teaching practice around the University. A Notes Database has been custom designed to act as a repository of the information. Since the main aim of the project is dissemination, publication of the information held in Notes onto the Web is essential to the success of the project. Notes provides a development environment that is simple for data entry using a forms based interface and manages both addition and deletion of material without the need to understand HTML code or keep track of local links etc.
One key advantage is that, where appropriate, links have been made from the Notes information to URLs e.g. a lecturer or department's own web page or other useful Web resources.
Associated with the teaching developments database is a discussion database, designed as a talking shop for those who wish to ask questions, either about the information held in the database or about teaching and learning in general. The discussion database is an example of the bi-directional possibilities, with both Notes and Web users completing Main Topic or Response forms to participate in the discussion.
Case 8 - Notes Calls
Notes calls is a tracking database used by the authors to assign, note and track any support calls received from learners (either on or off campus). This allows us to provide a better support service for a number of reasons:
- we can quickly see if a problem is recurring for many users and take remedial action
- we are building up a database of problems and solutions. This can be interrogated when other people phone with problems and speed up solution time.
- it provides a shared knowledge-base that allows cover when holidays/courses etc. take people out of the office for extended periods.
A touchstone of Lancaster University's learning technology strategy is the use of IT to support collaborative learning. As such the choice of a robust, flexible conferencing system is seen as an essential element in implementing that strategy. Initially, consultation with the user-base was undertaken to form evaluation criteria to apply to the various conference systems on offer at the time (early to mid 1995). Evaluation of systems was then undertaken, with Notes meeting more of the criteria than any other system evaluated . Heeren  has also produced a recent review of technological support for collaborative distance learning. More recent developments and announcements such as Domino, tighter integration with Windows NTAS and the proposed Internet Calendar Access Protocol further support the original decision.
Currently in our opinion, the main strengths of Notes for conferencing are:
- the support it offers for off-line working
- Web integration
- secure access control to conferences
- different forms of collaboration
- foreign language working
- integration with other mail systems
- potential for adaptation for specific requirements, e.g. in research projects
- extensibility through the API and integrated scripting languages
- structure of discussion clearly presented
- ability to have rich text and other objects either for launch from a message or in-line (i.e. actually shown/played in the message when it is opened).
- different forms can be created for different purposes (e.g. phone message)
- desktop 'folders' for managing conferences
- buttons for simple operations in conferences (e.g. Display next response etc.).
Experimenting with leading edge conference technology was not a goal. Programming support is expensive and very new technology changes quickly.
Offering any centrally supported service necessarily raises issues concerning the type and level of support offered. Perhaps one of the main disadvantages of Lotus Notes is caused by its great flexibility, one of the main reasons for choosing Notes in the first place. This exacerbates the problem of being clear to users about the level of support offered. Since the system has been chosen to be the conferencing system, not the groupware system, for the University support could legitimately be restricted to conferencing activities. However, to allow users to remain in ignorance of the other possibilities offered by Notes would also be a disservice to the user community.
In the first instance however, we have restricted workshops and user support documentation to conferencing activity. As the user base grows and some of the case studies reported above reach fruition, we feel sure that Notes will play an increasingly important role in supporting staff and students in this time of the declining unit of resource. The following sections outline briefly the support activities currently undertaken with 2 support staff, both of whom have other responsibilities as well.
Users require their names to be registered with Notes and an initial password to be issued. The possibility of incorporating this user registration with the University's automatic registration system is currently being investigated. Support for the inevitable lost or forgotten passwords is made more complex by Notes security which requires a small personal identity disc file to be used in addition to the case-sensitive password.
Each user is required to have a licence allocated to them, although these are transferable from one user to another. Ordering licences is easy. Maintaining records of which departments have licences and how many are in use at any given time is not!
Notes Application Development
As mentioned above, as people become aware of the power of Notes, they wish to harness that power to their own advantage. Where the standard Notes templates provide the system functionality and behaviour as required, this is a simple matter of creating a new database, giving it a suitable name and icon and setting access controls. However, where something more tailored is required Notes application development work is necessary. One member of staff is entirely funded by departments wishing to have such development undertaken.
Notes flexibility and functionality means more requests for customised installation sets, application design (e.g. conferencing, web publishing, document archives) and data integration (e.g. ODBC, OLE); all complicated somewhat by the wide range of client platforms. The possibilities for enhancement are virtually endless when compared to Lancaster's earlier text-based conference system where opportunities for local improvements were limited to development of new commands or command menus.
For Notes to be used successfully, staff need to be made aware of the possibilities it offers and how, pedagogically, they should incorporate this technology into their educational provision. Also, for existing users of Caucus, we have experienced a reluctance for people to change to Notes. Rogers  refers to this as the gradient of resistance experienced in most cases when introducing computer supported collaborative working into an organisation. In association with University Staff Development officers, courses have been and will continue to be offered. The courses cover best practice in the use of conferencing systems to support learners, using examples from UK Higher Education, not just Lancaster-based examples. We are fortunate that Lancaster is the host to the Computer Mediated Communication in Higher Education (CMC in HE) scheme, a British Telecom University Development Award  winner. Thus we have a local source of expertise .
Once a member of staff has decided to incorporate Notes into their course in some way, there is then an additional training need for any other members of teaching staff and students. To date, the central support staff have provided about 50% of the training required for staff and students. Again as use increases, the IT trainers are likely to take on responsibility for offering courses.
Supporting users on and off campus
A help-line is offered to both on and off-campus users of Notes and Web clients. At present, this does not take up a great deal of time since there a user base of around 200 people. However as use increases, this will have implications for support. Again it is likely that the training group, who run the general computer help desk, will take on some of this role for routine enquiries, referring more problematic enquiries to the specialist support staff.
Development of support materials
One way of alleviating calls is to provide comprehensive support materials for both on and off campus users. This has proved successful so far, with only 5% of off campus users needing to call the help-line (usually the problems are associated with setting up the initial modem connection either by direct dial or Internet diallup.)
The models of pedagogic integration of conferencing into courses, outlined in case studies 1&2, are being adopted by the departments of Philosophy and Creative Writing at Lancaster. The difference between the two implementations is that for Philosophy, use of the system will be compulsory, initially for only one module of their whole Masters degree programme, whereas for Creative Writing it will be optional for the whole Masters programme. Philosophy intend, on the basis of their experience in the coming academic year with Notes, to extend this compulsory use to all modules.
The use of the Domino software for Web access to a notes discussion database is being explored as a medium to encourage part-time PhD students in Management Learning to keep in touch between face to face meetings. The main hope is that this will ameliorate the feelings of isolation that often occur when engaged in PhD level study.
The Networking Academy
This project has two main goals:
- to create innovative, cross-campus and cross-cultural learning partnerships;
- to develop models of effective participation in networked environments for learning across the curriculum.
The project aims to harness multimedia and hypertext for teaching and learning events in inter and intra-university collaboration and to base their application on effective pedagogical models and recognised styles of learning (, , , ).
Notes supports iterative development (prototyping in response to user requirements), automates several Web related activities (avoiding a barrier to exploitation by unskilled users) and integrates well with the existing IT infrastructure which should facilitate the longer term uptake of any successful outcomes.
Showcase for Notes/Web
The most exciting and attractive feature of Notes at present is the possibility it offers for supporting Web applications. A showcase of possibilities for this development is currently under development and will involve:
- a notice board, with automatic publication and embargo dates
- Interactive forms e.g. for student degree application forms
- reference materials e.g. User Guides
Since writing the first article, things have moved on apace at Lancaster as experience and the grapevine have played a crucial part in extending the number of departments using Notes/Domino to support students both on and off campus.
This is just a brief update for those who followed the link here from Warwick's ETS Journal - please feel free to contact me if you wish to discuss any of the information given here or in the previous article, in more detail.
Overall we are now supporting 40 departments and projects, with representatives from all faculties on campus, using a variety of Notes Databases. Access is mainly via web browsers, as increasingly staff and students feel at ease with this technology. There has been a sharp decrease in the amount of startup support that students and staff have required to begin using this technology effectively.
The main use at undergraduate level is to support discussions, noticeboards and bibliographies (to which students can add reviews of readings).
At Postgraduate level it is mainly to help support a Professional Development network amongst people with much real-world experience and knowledge to share, although increasingly resources are also being made available via this medium also.
There have been a number of presentations regarding the work being done in the Law department here at Lancaster about their web-based negotiations exercises and more information can be found on the CTI Law WWW site.
For information about the Domino product see http://www.ibm.com/software/lotus
For information about the CHEST/LOTUS agreement for Notes/Domino licencing contact Education, Universities, HE & FE Colleges Sales Account Manager, John Claxton at Pheonix Software: http://www.phoenixs.co.uk/
Learning Technology Development Officer
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